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Justice delayed, disrupted

Financial crisis tries the abilities of nation's court systems.

BRENTWOOD, N.H. - Come February, the redbrick Rockingham County Courthouse, one of New Hampshire's busiest, will arraign criminal suspects, process legal motions, and otherwise deal with murders, mayhem and contract disputes. What it won't do is hold jury trials.

The nation's economic storm has come to this: Justice is being delayed or disrupted in many state courtrooms across the country.

Financially strapped New Hampshire has become a poster child for the problem. Among other cost-cutting measures, state courts will halt all civil and criminal jury trials for a month early next year to save $73,000 in jurors' per diems. Officials warn they may add another four-week suspension.

James M. Reams, the Rockingham County prosecutor, said his aides were scrambling to reschedule 77 criminal trials from the February docket.

"All the effort to subpoena witnesses and prepare for those trials is right out the window," Reams said. "Internally, it's a monumental waste of time. We'll have to redo everything."

Dennis Ducharme, a Manchester lawyer, received cancellation notices for four personal-injury cases scheduled for trial. He worries that a six-month delay will make witnesses less willing to testify.

"The longer you drag it out, the more reluctant people become to cooperate," he said.

Lawyer Lisa Wellman-Ally has seen a long-planned property-rights trial postponed four times. Each time, she prepared 100 exhibits, re-subpoenaed witnesses, refreshed her arguments, and billed her client for the time invested.

At least 19 other states have slashed court budgets and other government services as their economies have tanked, said Daniel Hall, vice president at the National Center for State Courts - a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Williamsburg, Va.

"Courts are there to provide a fair and impartial resolution of disputes," Hall said. "When you start affecting that, you affect who we are."

California, for instance, cut its judicial branch budget by more than $200 million, or about 10 percent, in the current fiscal year, and further reductions are almost certain as the state grapples with a projected $40 billion deficit.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Judges therefore usually give such trials priority over civil cases. As a result, cases involving civil litigation and family law are bearing the brunt of the disruptions. Making matters worse, a financial tsunami of bankruptcies, foreclosures and business disputes has increased the backlog.

After two rounds of budget cuts in Florida, for example, courts have laid off 280 clerks, lawyers and other staff members, and cut funding for a judges' unit that helps resolve civil disputes.

With rising joblessness and falling revenues, New Hampshire projects a budget deficit this year of $250 million. The crisis has forced Gov. John H. Lynch to seek spending cuts across state government, including the judicial system.

John T. Broderick, chief justice of the Supreme Court, has carved $2.7 million from the judicial budget. In addition to the one-month halt in jury trials and cutbacks on courtroom security, seven of the state's 59 judgeships will be left vacant through June, when the fiscal year ends. Three of the empty slots are in trial courts.

Worse, Broderick said, he might need to suspend jury trials for another month, and leave open a Supreme Court slot after one of the five justices retires in February. It is the state's only appellate court.

Robert J. Lynn, chief justice of the superior courts, which conduct all of New Hampshire's jury trials, said he feared the delays inevitably would cause damage. "There is some element of 'Justice delayed, justice denied,' no doubt about it," he said.